Mary Shelley’s “Euphrasia: A Tale of Greece” (1839) first appeared in The Keepsake for MDCCCXXXIX (1839) edited by Frederic Mansel Reynolds. The Keepsake belongs to a particular genre of English anthologies that served as gift books in the nineteenth-century. Charles E. Robinson, editor of Mary Shelley: Collected Tales and Stories (1976), writes that the books were “elaborately designed, expensively priced” publications that were intended as luxury items for gift giving at holidays and birthdays. These collections included works of poetry and fiction and contained illustrations, many of which were “sentimental, contrived and second-rate” (Robinson xi-xiii). Known primarily for her novel Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus (1818), The Keepsake’s collection of Shelley’s stories is now valued as a repository for her short fiction, a genre for which Shelley is not well known.
“Euphrasia” is told by an unnamed, first person narrator. It contains multiple shifts in the point of view and extended passages of discourse from several of the story’s characters, both of which give the story a multi-layered narrative frame and a complex voice.
"Euphrasia" is set in England at Christmastime in 1836. Four friends are traveling from Brighton to Lewes by horse and carriage. There is a snowstorm of historical proportion, and the party is stalled just before nightfall at the halfway point of their journey. Stuck in snowdrifts, a worrisome father frets for his daughter who, having been insistent on taking the trip, remains in the carriage while the horsemen and the father assess the situation. It is decided that the father and some of the riders will go ahead on horseback and return for the daughter with a more suitable conveyance. The remainder of the party stays behind to guard her. She grows impatient, and, “[a]nxious to divert the mind of the daughter,” an unnamed party member asks Harry Valency to follow up on his announcement that he “once passed a night more anxious that this promises to be” (296). Valency’s story is later repeated to the narrator “second-hand” and with a “vague recollection of dates and names and places” (296).
The story shifts to Valency’s point of view, during his time as a soldier fighting in the Greek War of Independence. Valency is young, energetic, and eager to join Greece’s cause. In Greece he encounters a group of soldiers and a character named the Chief (299). Valency presumes to join in the fight, and the Chief unintentionally insults him, tells Valency that he is merely a traveler and not a comrade. Offended, Valency protests the claims, and he is then granted a position in battle at the Chief’s side. Battle ensues, and Valency is wounded. The Chief comes to Valency’s aid after the battle. He attends to him with food and then falls to the ground, himself mortally wounded. The Chief insists that Valency resist in returning aid, and, resigned to death, they talk while Valency waits for help and the Chief waits for death.
Valency asks the Chief to tell his story, and this marks the third shift in the point of view: that of the Chief’s history. The Chief's name is Constantine. He is the brother of Euphrasia. The narrator begins with siblings’ upbringing, which was “passed under the guardianship of the brother by adoption of their father, whom they named father, and who loved them as his own soul” (301). Their named father is an intellectual, and he raises both children in the spirit of liberation—the son as a scholar-warrior with “a detestation of the oppressor” and the daughter as the fosterer of “civilization and knowledge” (302). The story progresses quickly, and the siblings grow up devoted to the ideas of their education, to one another, and to their father. The father dies, after which Constantine eventually goes to fight for Greece. He regularly receives letters from Euphrasia. Having been a soldier for some time, the letters abruptly stop coming. This incites his worry and his return to Athens where he finds that his sister has been taken by the Turks and placed in an oppressor’s harem.
This point marks another shift in the point of view: the narrator then quotes long passages of Constantine’s direct discourse to Valency (303-307), which tells the story of Euphrasia’s rescue from the harem. Constantine and a band of soldiers storm the palace, find the apartments where the women are kept, and there Constantine finds Euphrasia. He delivers her from the rooms, but she is shot by a surviving Turk in the process. She requests that he take her to their father’s tomb, but the city is overrun by Turks, and Constantine has no choice but to flee into the hills where he finds an old temple of “pious resignation” (306). He lays her at the steps and she dies. He then takes her body to a convent and turns her over to the maidens who place her on a bier, and Constantine goes “back to [his] camp, to live and die for Greece” (307).
This point marks the final shift in the point of view. The narrator conveys the final passages through the direct discourse of Valency who observes and remarks upon Constantine’s death. Valency falls asleep and wakes in the morning to the voices of his rescuers. He leaves Greece with a severe wound, convalesces for some time, and eventually returns to England. The story does not return to the initial frame of the snowstorm in England.
Themes and Analysis
Shelley, as in many of her works, addresses the issue of education, which in “Euphrasia” is an especially important subject. Constantine and Euphrasia are educated by their adopted father in the spirit of liberation and revolution. The father “felt that Greece would soon share the benefits to arise from the changes then operating”; without a proper education for the younger generation of Greeks the father “believed that Greece would have continued hopelessly enslaved” (301-302). Education is a gendered concept in the text: Euphrasia receives a “more singular” education than Constantine (302), but the two systems act together to empower the oppressed. The father believes that the inclination for war bestowed in a man’s education must be moderated by a civilized component in a woman’s education, which has the ability to “impart honor, and truth, and wisdom” (302). The father “knew that though liberty must be bought and maintained by the sword, yet that its dearest blessings must be derived from civilization and knowledge, and he believed women to be the proper fosterers of these” (302).
This notion empowers women, and it’s a radical concept for the historical moment in which Shelley is writing. Maryilyn Guall in English Romanticism: The Human Context (1988) writes of Shelley's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, that she “stated, reiterated, illustrated and argued…that women were inadequately educated, kept ignorant so they could be easily subjugated” (129). Shelley adopts the same concerns in the story. Education as it’s explored in “Euphrasia” imparts a significant amount of agency and responsibility not in Euphrasia alone but in society’s responsibility to fold women into the educational systems in order to produce a society capable of liberating itself and sustaining that freedom from the oppressors. This can be read as a comment on the educational systems, or lack thereof, available to women during the early nineteenth-century. Through the perspective of Euphrasia’s agency the story acts as an indictment of the educational institutions in England, drawing a parallel between the oppressors—the Turks—and English society.
History is directly addressed through the narrative of Valency and Constantine; both are soldiers in the Greek Revolutionary Wars, but the implications regarding the record of history—the credibility of history—are indirectly addressed by the complex frame narrative of the story. Robinson writes in the Collected Tales's notes that “Shelley frequently employed a frame tale to begin her narratives, but she did not always return to the reader the circumstances of the outer frame. Such an incongruity is most apparent in ‘Euphrasia’” (394). He asserts that were it not for an existing fair-copy manuscript of the story, one might assume that lack of space might have caused the editor of The Keepsake to exclude any final paragraphs of the story. However, the fair-copy manuscript suggests that Shelley intended to end the story without returning to the frame narrative of the snowstorm.
That Shelley does not return to the initial frame nor to the narrator can be interpreted as a comment on the production systems of history itself. The story frequently switches points of view, each time without returning to the previous one. This shifts control of the narrative from one voice to another, and during the process it easily escapes the reader that there is a common narrator. This literary device can function in the story in a similar way as does Shelley’s commentary on the institutions of education, only aimed at the institution of history. Gaull writes that "Romantic writers were the last generation to live without a cosmic history, they had a wider and richer range of illusions than any of their predecessors. From these they invented a past that compensated for…a national history that appeared even briefer and less significant as scientists discovered a much larger and older universe than anyone had previously conceived. For the creative mind, history, even historical inventions, are dangerous, for it is the tendency of traditions to become coercive, of custom to become law, and precedence to become authority" (176). In the same way that education was controlled, so too was the production history. The loose, constantly shifting control of power over the narrative in "Euphrasia" reflects the control of history by those who benefit from its record. The moment an event becomes recorded history it is altered, and, as for the narrator to whom events come “second-hand” and with a “vague recollection of dates and names and places” (Shelley 296), history is also inherently told second-hand. Shelley seems to be commenting on and questioning the processes traditionally used to tell and set down history, suggesting that an event is always suited to the agenda of the narrator.
Gaull, Marilyn. English Romanticism: The Human Context. New York: Norton, 1988. Print.
Robinson, Charles E., ed. Mary Shelley: Collected Tales and Stories. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1976. Print.
Shelley, Mary. “Euphrasia.” Mary Shelley: Collected Tales and Stories. Ed. Charles E. Robinson. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1976. 295-307. Print.